In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, opposition to the regime is more dangerous than ever. The same goes for public criticism of those in charge. The right to demonstrate has been successively restricted in recent years, media freedoms curtailed, and NGOs denigrated or banned.
The film shows how difficult it is in Russia to take the streets. There, any form of protest can be punished with long prison sentences. Members of the opposition risk their lives, and a dozen of them have been actively poisoned. Alexei Navalny is only the latest name in an ever-growing list. When he surprised everyone by returning to Moscow after treatment at a hospital in Berlin, Olga Romanova was one of those who tried to go to the airport to meet him. She also went to one of the demonstrations Navalny called for, a decision that would have serious consequences…
The Russian regime promotes the idea that foreign agents feed Western Russophobia, and that Navalny, his supporters, NGOs, and journalists are all complicit in this. But Navalny and his supporters, as well as dissidents both inside and outside Russia, tell a different story. They describe President Putin’s regime as a kleptocracy.
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“If Putin’s as popular as he claims, why is he so afraid of his opponents?” “Navalny fools his supporters and sends them onto the streets, where they break the law. If they are victims, it’s not of Putin’s regime, but of their own stupidity.” “I worked in a research institution.
I was forced to quit because I’m a political activist.” Vladimir Putin has been in power for more than two decades, massively exacerbating divisions within Russian society. One of his favorite tactics is repression, the effects of which are most noticeable in Moscow. Up to now, the metropolis of twelve million people has flourished economically
Due to revenues from the oil and gas sector. Moscow is held up as a prime example of Russia’s success. Here, average wages are three times higher than in more rural regions of the nation. And, unlike the rest of the country, the Russian capital is also a hotbed of growing resistance
To the Putin regime, especially for people who are young and educated. Who belongs to this opposition and what are their goals? What price are Putin’s critics willing to pay for greater justice and freedom? The Soviet flag disappeared from the roof of the Kremlin in late 1991, and was replaced with the Russian banner.
Democracy and freedom took hold. The population appeared to be united. After 70 years of Communism, austerity and state propaganda, people had hopes for a better life. What’s happened to that Russian unity? It’s a question I’m keen to explore. In the 1990s, I worked as a journalist in Moscow.
One of my friends was a local colleague: Pyotr Tolstoy. He’s now one of the most influential members in Putin’s inner circle. We meet again for the first time in 30 years. “Hi, how’s it going? Can you still speak Russian?” “It’s been a while, but I’ll give it a go.” It’s September 2021.
Tolstoy, a great grandson of the legendary writer, hopes to win reelection as a member of parliament. “There’s a long queue.” “Well there’s something at stake!” “That’s democracy: people queuing to cast their votes.” Upon first glance, it looks comparable to western elections. You can vote and there are electoral lists.
Cameras film the top politician casting his vote. State media disseminate the image of a free and fair process. “How many candidates are there?” “How many? 1, 2, 3, 12!” Besides Putin’s “United Russia” party, there’s a Communist and a liberal opposition. But the authorities decide who’s allowed to run. According to the NGO “Golos,”
The electoral commission has blocked the candidacy of nine million people in national and local polls across the land. European Council observers say this isn’t democratic. Meanwhile, supporters of Pyotr Tolstoy and Putin’s party are confident of their victory. “The opposition is just a minority. The presidential elections shows us what the majority thinks.”
“That’s just 5,000 people out of 150 million. In our country, criminals aren’t allowed in politics. That’s why the opposition doesn’t have any candidates.” Without free elections, it’s difficult to gauge how many supporters Putin actually has. That’s why young Moscow activists are trying to document the suspected electoral fraud, despite fearing the consequences.
Olga works in marketing. But today, she’s posing as a supporter of the oppositional Communist Party. “I’m not a member of the CP. But I’m pretending to be, so I can be here as an election observer.” This transparent box is one of thousands of mobile ballot boxes belonging to the Russian electoral commission.
They were introduced to make voting easier for the elderly during the coronavirus pandemic. “Hello, we’re from the electoral commission. Open the door please!” Olga’s interested to know why millions of retired people are voting for Putin’s party, despite their meagre pensions. The name of the governing party’s candidate standing for re-election is Dimitri Pevzov.
“Are you Margarita Petrovna?” “Yes.” “We’re here so you can vote.” “Why?” “You requested our visit, didn’t you?” “Yes. I remember. Who should I vote for?” “I’ll explain everything to you. I’ve brought a pen. You can keep that.” Margarita struggles to find the name of the candidate just recommended to her.
“Did the nursing home aide give you the name?” “Yes. I heard Pewzow.” “Why are you voting for him? There are plenty of other names on the list.” “Here, I found him!” “Look: She’s just voted for Pevzov.” To election observer Olga, this is clearly a set-up. Elderly people are being systematically manipulated
Before elections to choose candidates loyal to Putin. “Goodbye!” “Put a little cross next to your chosen candidate.” “Did you already decide?” “Yes. I’m an grown woman and I’m voting for Pevzov from “United Russia”.” “Please don’t fold it. I’ll help you…” “I grew up in the Soviet Union.
I was in the Communist Party back then. But now I trust the Putin party.” “Well then: Goodbye!” “I don’t think Russia is divided. There’s a minority of young people who didn’t experience the Soviet Union, who were born after it ended. Some of them have no appreciation for national Russian identity.
Our mistake was to allow a generation of 20- to 30-year-olds to mix western culture with Russian values.” Vladimir Kara-Mursa sees things differently. He was a comrade and friend of Boris Nemzov, who was shot dead in front of the Kremlin in 2015. Vladimir has survived two poison attacks himself
And is under permanent secret service surveillance. When I’m on the phone, I know that there’s always a third party listening on the line. State television also always knows who I’m meeting and where I am. They’ll appear with cameras and broadcast defamatory stories about me. For example, that we’re being funded by the West.
Now my wife’s started asking where all the money’s going and why she hasn’t seen any of it yet. “I don’t care that they’re following or wiretapping me.” “No idea if it’s psychological warfare. But after two attacks with chemical substances, being tailed doesn’t scare me anymore.
I know what’s really going on in this country and who’s behind it all.” In addition to the assassination attempt on Vladimir Kara-Mursa, there’ve been numerous other poison attacks on members of the opposition since Vladimir Putin became Russian President in 2000. The most recent case wasn’t so long ago …
In August 2020, Alexei Navalny fell seriously ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow. Doctors at a hospital in Omsk put Navalny in an induced coma and he was flown out to Berlin. Alexei Navalny made a statement in late 2020 — four months after being poisoned. “Hi, it’s me.
I’m reading a lot of what’s been written about me in Moscow. I’m surprised at the lengths Putin is going to, to prevent my return. Now that I’m feeling better, today I’ve decided to end my stay in Germany. I’ll arrive at Moscow airport on the 17th of January 2021. Come and pick me up!”
Olga wanted to respond to Navalny’s call to action, but her mother feared this could land her daughter in trouble. Both are already familiar with Russian prisons. In 2017, both mother and daughter were arrested at a demonstration in downtown Moscow? when authorities began to crack down more harshly on protests.
This picture of Olga became a symbol of the opposition: an innocent Russian citizen arrested for no reason. On this day in January of 2021, the activist arrived at Moscow airport with thousands of other supporters of Navalny, to learn that his plane had been diverted. The protesters didn’t hold back: “Putin, you provocateur!”
Alexei Navalny has been condemning corruption in Russia for more than a decade. It’s landed him in jail several times. This time, he faced two-and-a-half years in prison. And the former lawyer has faced more than the nerve agent attack. The opposition politician was arrested the moment he arrived back in Russia.
“It was all in vain. He was still arrested.” But while he was in Germany, Navalny prepared an outrageous expose, a grenade just ready to be thrown. The purpose of the video: to cause major problems for the Kremlin and above all, Putin. “You’ll see for yourselves how much this man loves luxury
And money and that he’s capable of anything.” The investigation revealed the Russian President’s megalomania, how his family is embezzling public funds and how his KGB-era friends are lining their pockets. This doesn’t align with the image of Putin peddled by state media? that of a modest and courageous head of state.
The video, which is just under two hours long, has been viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube. “Putin, you thief!” Across the country, more and more disaffected Russians rally behind Navalny in protest against rampant corruption. Every request to demonstrate is blocked. This gives the authorities the power to intervene and arrest participants.
“Dear Citizens! We’re here to ensure your safety. Please disperse. This is an illegal gathering.” Nevertheless, Olga and her sister Tanja meet a friend. They know Alina from previous rallies. Thousands of people take to the streets, many of them students peacefully expressing their opinions — but nonetheless, at great risk.
“I’ve got a load of posters under my coat. I’m scared I might be detained, but thanks to the NGOs at least I know the law. We’re doing this discreetly.” The slogans read “I’m not afraid” or “We want freedom”. Statements that wouldn’t lead to jail in other countries.
Just in case, Olga and her friend Alina stay on the sidelines. “I had a bad feeling about this. Don’t you?” The situation escalates. “Why are you taking her?” Without any warning, Alina is seized by officers. “Tell me where you’re taking her! To which station? What did she do? Why are you taking her?
You don’t even know yourself! We were just standing on the pavement. Where are you taking my friend? Is this a joke? Listen to me! Do you know why she’s being arrested?” The police are clearly just following orders to detain as many demonstrators as possible.
In the chaos, Alina is able to let Olga know which station she’s being taken to. “Police station 6?” “Can you see and hear me OK?” A few days later, the President takes questions from students. In spite of his friendly, calm tone, Vladimir Putin issues a clear warning to his critics.
“What’s your view of the current situation? Thank you!” “Thank you for your question. I’d like to make it clear once again that everyone has the right to free expression, but that this can only happen within the existing legal framework. Anyone going a step too far in this regard isn’t just acting counterproductively,
But even dangerously.” Dangerous — in the more than 20 years that Putin’s been in power, he’s successfully restricted the right of assembly. If two or more regime critics meet, that’s enough to be labeled as an illegal demonstration. “Navalny encourages his supporters to take to the street and thereby break the law.
This is how they then get caught up in the wheels of justice. Yes, they’re victims. But not of Putin’s regime, as they claim? but of their own stupidity.” Alina was released after one night in a cell. She faces a heavy fine and a trial. At the moment, she’s not doing too well financially.
Her activism has cost her her job and she’s just trying to make ends meet. She’s working in a dog grooming parlor. She loves animals, but this job’s a far cry from her actual expertise. “I’m an engineer in the missile industry and I worked at a research institute. They didn’t fire me,
But I was forced to quit because of my political activism.” “That’s correct: I help people who were arrested and I demonstrate for civil rights. My bosses didn’t like the fact that I was working for the opposition. One day, I was visited at work by people from the FSB, the domestic secret service.”
Alina lost her trust in Russian state media long ago. Like many young people, she gets her information from independent news sites online. They paint a completely different picture of Putin’s Russia. “My grandparents watch TV all day. They can’t conceive of the fact
That what’s being put in front of them might not be correct. They think whatever’s on TV is the truth. Initially they tried to change my political views, but we always ended up arguing. These days I just avoid the subject because I know the discussion won’t lead anywhere.”
In Soviet times, no one believed the state propaganda. People even laughed at the headlines in the CP newspaper “Pravda”. Today too, we’re living in an empire full of lies? except the whole machine runs much more efficiently now. And, I must confess, there’s much more talent at play than in the past.
Kremlin propaganda is still fooling the majority of Russians and influencing millions of people. But there are also millions of people, especially the young, who stopped believing Putin’s lies. And we’re seeing them at the demos.” Because older disinformation tactics no longer work with this generation, the regime deploys the fear factor.
Alina’s example shows that this isn’t just about losing a job or paying a fine. In the worst-case scenario, she could end up serving a longer prison sentence, something that’s already happened to many other demonstrators. On the 27th of July 2019, for example, tens of thousands marched through central Moscow, demanding that their candidate
Be allowed to run for the office of mayor. The police took a brutal approach, intervening and making random arrests. “Help me!” There were scuffles with the police, which also involved Igor, the young man in the jean shorts and gray T-shirt. Later, authorities claimed that Igor hit this police officer so hard
He could not longer stand up. As this footage clearly shows, it was a complete fabrication. Nevertheless, Igor was sentenced to three years in prison, together with many other demonstrators. “He’s got one more year to serve.” For Igor’s partner Dascha, this spelled the end of their shared dream.
“We were planning to start our own tourism business chauffeuring around vacationers. We even wanted to buy a minivan. Here are our first posts about it. After Igor was sentenced, he asked me to marry him. But I don’t want to marry someone in a prison.” State media presented Igor as a dangerous criminal.
The public defamation of opposition members is typical of today’s Russia. Family and friends are shocked at the harsh sentences handed down to innocent citizens. “We were portrayed as terrible people. After the trial, I received threats from others saying they wanted to shoot, burn or hang me.
If people who make and implement these laws had a shred of honesty, justice or sense, Igor would’ve been given a suspended sentence at the very most.” The prison holding Igor is located in Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. It’s about one Thousand kilometers from his home city of Moscow, which means that few people can visit.
Today, his lawyer has once again made the long journey here to file an application for early release at the relevant regional court. The hearing appears comparable to western judicial systems. Igor is able to give a statement via video link from prison. Although he was eligible for parole months ago,
State prosecutors oppose his release. “I see no reason why my client can’t be released early. I can’t understand the prosecutor’s reasoning.” The lawyers words fall on deaf ears. Igor’s good behavior also counts for nothing. “I request that the court release me on probation. I’ve done everything I’ve been told to do in prison,
And I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.” It’s no surprise that the court denies the motion. “The judge is about to retire. He won’t be taking any more risks. You need to understand how you become a judge in Russia in the first place. They’re all former justice officials.
In the first 10, 15 years of their careers, they see how closely judges and prosecutors work together. So when they get to be judges themselves, they have to behave the same way.” The lack of an independent judiciary leaves many Russians defenseless against the tyranny of the state.
“Everyone in this country knows that in 99 per cent of criminal proceedings, the accused is found guilty. Official Supreme Court statistics say there’s one acquittal for every 10 thousand verdicts. Even during the Stalin era, the numbers looked better.” To escape this machinery of repression, thousands of government critics have only one option:
They have to flee Russia — by any means necessary. A thousand kilometers to the west of Moscow, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were the first Republics to win independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991. The Baltics have remained a popular holiday destination for Russians.
There’s a significant Russian community in the region to this day. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the EU and NATO in 2004. Fears that Moscow could reassert historical territorial claims have existed here for a long time — not just since the annexation of Crimea in 2014
Or the attack on large parts of Ukraine in 2022. Many dissidents have relocated to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania… Russians are granted political asylum here. Located not far from Independence Square, this former Russian KGB building has been turned into a museum — a reminder of Soviet repression.
The cells are similar to those used back then to incarcerate these three men for their political views. It triggers vivid, nightmarish memories for Mikhail, Dimitri and Vladmir. At 35, Dimitri is the oldest of the three. He had to pay for his political activism with 14 years in prison,
Even though he didn’t hurt anyone. He is a victim of the Russian justice system’s despotism. “Doesn’t look bad at all. I told you about the steel beds.” “You can’t sleep well on those, because they’re too short.” “It was exactly the same for me back then. But this has windows.” “I was tortured.
In Russia, confessions are beaten out of you.” “You were beaten?” “Of course. They’re quite creative and hit you where it hurts the most. They also use electricity from an old generator.” “Where was it applied?” “To the genitals, normally. Sometimes to the face. You’re at the mercy of their ingenuity.
And they know where it’s most painful.” “To the ears as well. To the earlobes or cheek.” This footage was filmed with a hidden camera in a Russian prison in the summer of 2017. Several guards are torturing a naked man. When it went public, the film caused a scandal,
But the perpetrators got off with extremely lenient sentences. “I wanted to kill myself to end the torture. I slashed my throat.” “How?” “I filed down the toothbrush handle and rammed it into my neck. If I was going to die, then it should at least be fast.” Dimitri was taken to hospital.
Eventually, he managed to escape abroad — like so many others. It’s estimated that since 2008, some 1 point 8 million Russians have left their homeland? including some of the nation’s best minds. This has had a hugely negative impact on the federation’s development. For example, Sergey is a dissident who now lives in Vilnius.
He’s an IT network specialist. Like Aidar, he had to flee Moscow in 2019 to avoid being jailed for joining an anti-Putin demonstration. “You spend two, three years in prison for nothing. If you’re 25 or 30, those are your best years, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
“If there’s no justice in a country, then there’s no security and no economic development. You can’t be sure you won’t end up in jail for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” “I read all the time on Twitter about people who want to leave or who’ve already left.
And these aren’t regular workers, they’re highly educated people with university degrees, doctors, engineers and so forth… The way our nation’s going, people don’t want to live there anymore.” Economist Sergey Guriev has settled in Paris, France. He was Russia’s envoy to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
He was forced into exile after sharing comments critical of Putin’s inner circle. “In 2013, I said publicly that the nation must fight corruption. Friends told me that Vladimir Putin wasn’t especially thrilled by that. He’s often asked if he’s concerned with the high numbers of educated people leaving Russia.
His answer is always: No, we’re a free country. And it’s obvious why he says that: Anyone who’s educated and understands that Russia is limping behind the rest of the world is a threat to his power. For Putin it’s better if people like that lived abroad.” But criticism is growing within Russia too —
In regions where people’s lives are a far cry from that of urban centers like Moscow. “Life in Russia is nothing but joy. No need to look anywhere else.” Vladimir Egorov is an electrician and blogger who comes from Toropez, a small Russian town of 13,000 residents.
His Internet report on the poor state of his home has ruffled the feathers of the powerful. “This is the true face of Putin’s Russia. Everything’s destroyed, like this dairy farm. No more bombs are needed here. NATO no longer needs to destroy Russia.” Vladimir Egorov had to secretly flee to the West.
He crossed the border into Lithuania. Now, he’s at a refugee center waiting for his asylum claim to be processed. I’m like a mini Navalny. That’s what people called me. Only I’m not running for any political office. I’ve just asked that the streets of my town be cleaned up.
For that, I’ve been described as a public enemy. There was nothing else I could do, so I tried using humor. The locals laughed, but those at the top didn’t. So they took their revenge on me in their own way.” Instead of responding to his concerns,
The authorities arrested Vladimir and charged him with extremism. He faced a long prison term. He only saw one way out: escape. A stranger helped him out. “Somebody contacted me through Facebook and said he could help me. He wasn’t an activist, just a regular citizen.
He drove with me through Belarus to the Lithuanian border, to a lake. I had a waterproof rucksack and flippers with me. I jumped out of the moving car straight into the water and swam half a kilometer across the lake at night with GPS.
Meanwhile, he and his son just carried on driving without stopping — just in case we’d been followed. I asked him: you do realize you’re helping a criminal? And he answered: I’d like to teach my son about courage.” Vladimir had to leave his wife and children behind.
All because he spoke the truth about the misery of life in rural Russia. “Who is this Obama? And who’s Trump? Who the hell is that? He’s a nobody compared to Putin, they’re just idiots. They’re nothing. Putin plays them like a fiddle. Look here: we often get power cuts. We can cope with that.
We can manage without light. Imagine how the Americans would feel? They’d be finished.” According to official figures, the average monthly income in rural areas is equivalent to 300 Euros. With no sign of an upswing. As a show of strength, all Putin can do is allude to the glory of long-past victories
During his commemorative speeches. “The enemy attacked our nation, invaded it to destroy us — as a state and a nation.” Celebrating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany doesn’t make up for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Demonizing the West helps uphold national pride. “We’ve retreated from the West every time.
It forced its economic and cultural model, as well as its moral codes, onto us in an aggressive manner. Do people really believe that when ‘evil’ Putin is gone, that’ll be the end? That Russia will just submit to the West? No, that won’t be the case.” “The executioners are back in Russia.
We’ve always respected international law, but we’ll defend our national interests at any price.” “Many regimes have been in power in Russia. There was Tsarism, Stalinism and everything after that. I’d describe the current one as a post-modern dictatorship with a pseudo-democratic façade — with farcical elections and legal procedures
And a justice system resembling that of the Soviet Union.”
Video “Crushed by Putin: Russia's threatened opposition | DW Documentary” was uploaded on 11/02/2023 by DW Documentary Youtube channel.